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13: Transnational Exchanges- Modernism and Modernity Beyond Borders, 1913-1940

  • Page ID
    • Angela L Miller, Janet Catherine Berlo, Bryan J Wolf, and Jennifer L Roberts
    • Washington University in St. Louis, University of Rochester, Stanford University and Harvard University

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    AT THE BEGINNING of the twentieth century, developments in European modernism began to have a profound effect on the direction of American art. Between 1913 and 1940 the artistic encounter between America and Europe underwent three distinct phases. In the first, American artists and audiences encountered European modernism through exposure to European art in publications and through travel to Europe. This phase culminated in a watershed event: the Armory Show of 1913, a large scale international exhibition of art in New York City that opened the floodgates of European modernism to the broader American public. The experience of industrial heir, poet, and collector Walter Arensberg was emblematic: his initiation into modernism began at the Armory Show, which so captured his interest that he forgot to go home for three days.1 Thereafter, he and his wife Louise went on to assemble the exceptional modernist collection that can now be seen at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

    In the second phase, European artists in New York encountered American modernity and made it the subject of their art. Propelled out of Europe by social turmoil and war, European artists became fascinated, not by American art, but by modern America, which they saw as unfettered by tradition, and brimming with the energies of popular expression, from jazz, film, and advertising to the infatuation with machines. European artists in New York delighted in America's expanding consumer culture as a source for their own playful inventions. They assumed new identities that flouted the cultural, social, and sexual norms of conventional society. In America's modernity they discovered the subject matter for a new twentieth-century art.

    In the third phase, American artists integrated these two perspectives, by internalizing both the Europeans' modernist formalism and their enthusiasm for the dynamism of American culture in a startlingly fresh language of abstraction. The European enthusiasm for America helped American artists to overcome their own reluctance to engage technological modernity. Likewise, the ironic humor Europeans found in the machine-based, comfort-obsessed consumer culture of the United States was taken up by American artists living and traveling in Europe after World War I. Like European expatriates in America, American expatriates in Europe also played with social, gender, and racial identities in the relative freedom afforded by a foreign land.

    The crosscurrents of international influence were especially distinctive in sculpture and architecture. In the medium of sculpture, European emigres found a new freedom exploring American vernacular, popular, and folk materials, while American sculptors turned to direct carving, a technique associated with non-Western cultures. Paradoxically, these primitivizing approaches turned away from the modernist engagement with technology, finding inspiration instead directly from natural materials such as wood and stone.

    In architecture the role of cultural exchange was even more pronounced. While reform-minded American designers looked abroad for inspiration, European designers-finding their way toward an architecture of pure volumes and structural integrity-looked to American grain silos, exhibition buildings, and factories. Ultimately, European modernist ideas-derived from construction in the United States-shaped the emergence of American architectural modernism in the years around World War II when architects and designers from Germany and France emigrated to New York, Boston, Chicago, and Los Angeles.

    The encounters of this era illustrate the co-evolution of American modernism and international developments. These exchanges were driven by the push and pull of opposing forces: the cataclysmic end of the old order in Europe, and the emergence in America of a youthful society of unprecedented abundance and dynamic energy.

    Thumbnail: MARSDEN HARTLEY, Portrait of a German Officer, 1914. Oil on canvas, 68¼ x 41⅜ in (173.3 X 105.1 cm). Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. The Alfred Stieglitz Collection, 1949.